Chiaroscuro not only represents an accomplished and crucial album in terms of its contribution to jazz – and, it should be added, that other nebulous genre: ambient – it also demonstrates how culture can flourish as a shared, public good.
LABEL (YEAR): CITY CENTRE OFFICES (2000)
FOR FANS OF: BOARDS OF CANADA, MASSIVE ATTACK, LAMB, NIGHTMARES ON WAX
Words by Aidan Daly
You’d think that being a fan of Warp darlings Autechre, Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada I’d have been exposed to Arovane, aka Uwe Zahn, much earlier. Zahn’s contribution to the vast body of work lazily but continually termed ‘IDM’ is considerable, but he hasn’t received nearly the level of attention he deserves, especially compared to those mentioned above. Though Zahn’s second album Tides departs noticeably from the glitches and breaks of his debut Atol Scrap, it retains an acute level of melodic and emotional depth.
A central component of the album is the use of the harpsichord – its harsh, bright sound not typically associated with the placidity of the broader wave of late 90s/early noughties downtempo. On opener ‘Theme’, the instrument fades in over a reverb-heavy drum loop, the motif set up with the expectation that a bass line will enter, or some other structural deviation. Instead, the harpsichord simply fades out again and the song ends. Likewise, the instrument’s prominence in ‘A Secret’ slices through the blanket of delicate background synths – a contrast that serves to give the album much of its character and consistency.
‘Eleventh!’ comes close to being a replica of better-known Boards of Canada, all melancholy chords and fucked up samples of children’s laughter. Interestingly enough, however, Zahn actually anticipates the darker turn Boards would take with the occult-influenced Geogaddi, released two years after Tides. The album ends as it starts with ‘Epilogue’, as harpsichord and drum loops are set against each other again. This time the waters are choppier, the harshness of the harpsichord more apt for the closing track’s brooding twists and turns.
Tides ebbs and flows, pushes and pulls, achieving much with such a minimal structure of repeated, chopped up drum samples and subdued overhead melodies. As a whole, the album folds in and out of itself, tracks fading into the next, recalling earlier moments as it develops. In Tides, without over-conceptualising, Zahn succeeded in creating a body of music that reflects the subtle qualities of its namesake.
ARTIST: JAN JELINEK
LABEL (YEAR): ~SCAPE (2001)
FOR FANS OF: BOARDS OF CANADA, FENNESZ, MURCOF
Words by Jasper Morvaridi
Jan Jelinek's debut full-length Loop Finding Jazz Records makes me feel fuzzy. It might be the use of static and white noise, the warmth of the sounds or even the simplicity of the loops used throughout. But the record has a certain feeling to it that, for me at least, could warm up the coldest of winter days.
Loop Finding Jazz Records is situated somewhere between minimal, ambient and techno music. Yet the subtlety and simplicity of the loops, synths and rhythms make it far harder to pigeonhole. Microscopic clicks and pops neatly decorate the dampened layers of loops (that may well have been from jazz records, though it's unlikely), to create rhythms that slowly pulse into life.
In places the record feels like a less aggressive, or perhaps less heavy, Andy Stott, though it's only really 'Rock In The Video Age' and 'Tendency' that make use of 4/4 rhythms for a sound that is somewhat dance-floor ready. Meanwhile 'They, Them' has a gentle swing to it and tracks like opener 'Moiré (Piano & Organ)' and 'Them, Their' set the scene for a record that washes and swirls through warm textures.
It'd be easy to over-intellectualise or over analyse this album's intricacies. But to me it's simple: eight tracks and 51 minutes of music that give me a hazy dream-like feeling. And I'd hope that it'd do the same for you too.
ARTIST: THE CARETAKER
ALBUM: AN EMPTY BLISS BEYOND THIS WORLD
LABEL (YEAR): HISTORY ALWAYS FAVOURS THE WINNERS (2011)
FOR FANS OF: V/VM, KIASMOS, JEFRE CANTU-LEDESMA
Words by Alastair Pearson
James Leyland Kirby's 2011 album emerged partly in response to research conducted by the Boston University School of Medicine into the effects of music on the ability of people living with Alzheimer's disease to recall information. Researchers found a higher rate of accurate recall to sung information accompanied by music than to unaccompanied spoken information. Rather than suggesting the power of music to form memories, the research indicated that for those living with Alzheimer's disease, the 'complex neural networks' engaged in the processing of musical information 'are affected at a slower rate... than those areas of the brain typically associated with memory.’ In Bliss, muffled, disorientated phrases sampled from old 78s segue spasmodically against the comforting crackle of well-worn lacquer, offering a hand to hold through the maze of memories evoked by the faded playfulness of Kirby's source material.
Bliss is about memory, time and culture. From the moment the record starts you are dragged back in time by melodies from the ballroom, yet the album's scrambled continuity places the work firmly in the present. Having never lived in a time to have formed memories of formal dances with tuxedos and ballgowns, I nevertheless feel nostalgia for a time I have never lived in, for the swells and spikes that would evoke memories of a velvet-gloved hand upon my shoulder and the padding of patent leather shoes across thick hotel carpets. These are the memories of people living with Alzheimer's today, and Kirby's poignant work raises questions as to the sounds our memories will recall in years to come. In the age of instant 'capture and recollection via the internet', what will future generations point to as culturally nostalgic? One can only hope Miley Cyrus will be top of the list.
ARTIST: SUSUMU YOKOTA
LABEL (YEAR): SKINTONE/THE LEAF LABEL (1999/2000)
FOR FANS OF: BRIAN ENO, BOARDS OF CANADA, APHEX TWIN
Words by Aidan Daly
Sakura is an strange album. I can’t tell if I only think this because I found it around the same time I was reading Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore, and the subtle absurdity of the book leaked into my listening. It could well have been the other way round.
Either way, like much of Murakami, Sakura appears completely familiar and disembodied at the same time. Swells of serene loops make up the album’s meandering fifty-one minutes, yet each track remains rooted by a pulse, be it a rhythmic one or a repeating musical motif, which provides a framework for other elements to unfold around. Much of the music is disturbingly affectionate, a sensation made even more immediate through the sustained repetition that structures the album.
Appropriately, ‘Gekkoh’ makes use of Steve Reich’s ‘Pulses’ from Music for 18 Musicians, tastefully recycling it alongside strings and impatient, metronomic percussion. ‘Saku’ opens the album as dreamy ambient smog, until the track’s layers ebb away leaving only a reiterating, twitching hook – perversely mechanical given the rest of the track. ‘Hisen’ sluggishly morphs into a contemplative chord sequence, aided by violin samples, while ‘Azukiiro No Kaori’ sees a crescendo of knotted vocals gradually come to fill the mix, both touching and distancing simultaneously.
I always come back to Sakura. It’s accessible, and pleasant, but there’s an alienating undercurrent to it. It’s precisely this duality that makes the album so enticing – a sweet spot only Yokota knew how to exploit.
ARTIST: KAITLYN AURELIA SMITH
LABEL (YEAR): WESTERN VINYL (2016)
FOR FANS OF: PHILLIP GLASS, BRIAN ENO, FEVER RAY, BOARDS OF CANADA
Words by Jasper Morvaridi
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith hails from Orcas Island, Washington State, which she describes as "one of the most magical and peaceful places.” It’s clear that she’s channelled the energy and glorious nature of her hometown into her beautiful new album, EARS. It’s an album intrinsically connected with nature that somehow also feels completely out of this world.
EARS is made up of many undulating layers, primarily composed using Smith’s impressive Buchla 100 Music Easel synthesizer. Pulsing patterns, smooth enveloped sounds and lyrics, both sung and chanted, drift naturally through the record. Hearing the introduction of Smith’s vocals, almost three minutes into opener ‘First Flight’, stopped me in my thoughts the first time I heard it and continues to give me goosebumps.
Rob Frye (of Bitchin Bajas) decorates many of the tracks with acoustic woodwinds, complementing Smith’s intricate production. On ‘Envelope’, Frye’s winds lead the middle section of the track, whilst on ‘Rare Things Grow’, they harmonise neatly with her vocal melody.
Where ‘Rare Things Grow’ subtly makes use of Aphex Twin’s ‘Tha’, from Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, the use of field recordings explores the overarching theme of the album: nature. Each of the nine enticing tracks play upon this theme through their many textures and layers. Listened to in its entirety, however, the album immerses you in Smith's own vision of some faraway, intergalactic world.
For me, this interplay between two worlds: analogue and electronic, natural and cosmic, navigated through the use of synthesizer and woodwinds, makes this album as special as it is. I don’t doubt that we'll be seeing this topping ‘best of’ lists later this year.
ARTIST: BRIAN ENO
ALBUM: DISCREET MUSIC
LABEL (YEAR): OBSCURE (1975)
FOR FANS OF: JAMES BLACKSHAW, TANGERINE DREAM
Wordy by Sam Hall
Not much needs to be said about Brian Eno and his legacy – Roxy Music alone should be enough. But this gem of a record, his fourth solo effort, is one that clearly signals his progress towards the ambient aesthetic we now hold him responsible for pioneering. It's painfully quiet and masterfully subtle in composition – a deliberate approach by Eno that forces the listener to relinquish all distractions and allow the mood to wash over. The fact that this was made in 1975, the year that Morris Albert's Feelings was making everyone's ears bleed, speaks volumes about Eno's mastery and singularity.
For a time when you need to truly find peace of mind, listen in to Discreet Music and tune out.
ALBUM: MUSIC FOR KEYBOARDS VOL. II: VARIATIONS OF WHAT'S MY AGE AGAIN
LABEL (YEAR): HIPPOS IN TANKS (2012)
FOR FANS OF: NILS FRAHM, BLINK 182, KEITH JARRETT
Words by Jasper Morvaridi
At first glance, with the title referencing Blink 182’s ‘What’s My Age Again’, you’d expect this album to be something of a novelty. Surprisingly, however, d’Eon extracts 14 variations of Blink’s famed song to provide a record that is unique, and far from the original.
Drawing upon inspiration from the chord progressions and melodies of 'What’s My Age Again', Music for Keyboards Vol. II is an exercise that looks at the Blink 182 song from a number of abstract angles. Despite its provenance in pop-punk, the various layers of keys form an album that is set worlds apart from the original; it is only 'Variation V' that sounds anything at all like the original Blink song. As a result, the record is both minimal and intimate.
Unlike the first instalment in d’Eon’s Music For Keyboards series, Vol. II is consistent in its use of the same keyboard sounds. This lends itself to the creation of a record comprised of coherent and beautiful melodies that build throughout. In so doing, it succeeds in creating a minimalistic album that stands alone from the Blink track it references, a project in its own right.
Released as a free ‘mixtape’ via Hippos in Tanks in 2012, this is a download that’s not to be missed.
ALBUM: Will To Be Well
LABEL (Year): Blackest Ever Black (2014)
FOR FANS OF: Emeralds, Sun Glitters, Ben Frost, Tim Hecker
Words by Stef Fiorendi
Dalhous is the project of Scottish duo Marc Dall and Alex Ander, formerly known as Young Hunting. They were signed to London/Berlin dark electronic label Blackest Ever Black Records, in 2010.
If you listen to Young Hunting’s first album, The Night of the Burning, you would naturally draw similarities between the band’s sound and penchant, medieval rituals. Will To Be Well, however, is nothing to do with darkness and medieval atmospheres.
On this most recent album, the music sounds delicate and ephemeral. It could be easily compared to an abstract painting or drowsy Sunday mornings, spent staring out of the window over hazy landscapes. (This is how I imagine a typical Sunday morning in the Highlands)!
This blissful imagery is conveyed by the dense and layered sounds, spontaneously created by Dall and sensibly manipulated by Ander. The use of synthesizers, sampling and re-recording, helps melt everything together, to create a rich and impenetrable sound. Despite the many layers appearing out of focus, your mind remains clear and opened. The compositions are smooth and suggestive, with a slightly futuristic edge, which moves your contemplative vision from your bedroom to another dimension.
Honestly? I found Dalhous while looking for some new ambient music to substitute my sleeping pills. It worked wonderfully.
Label (Year): Erased Tapes (2014)
For Fans Of: Jon Hopkins, Synkro, Yagya, Ólafur Arnalds, Bloodgroup
Words by Aidan Daly
Fusing the neo-classical elegance of sonic heartbreaker Ólafur Arnalds and the sleek, synth-oriented production of Bloodgroup’s Janus Rasmussen, Kiasmos’ self-titled debut delicately traverses the middle ground between its creators.
Despite being primarily an electronic project, the incorporation of live instrumentation in the form of a grand piano and a string quartet provides the album with its uniquely organic essence. Appropriately, the album often acts as a harmonic accompaniment to the glacial Icelandic environment in which the album was written and recorded. Distinctively cold melodies sit tightly on top of pulsating sub bass, while icy and brittle percussive elements splinter through canvases of strings and piano.
Throughout, refrains build to cinematic intensity, often around a simple and repeating melody. This minimalism is something that characterises much of the album, also a prominent feature of Arnalds’ solo work. Basic motifs composed of no more than three or four individual notes provide the framework upon which lush electronic and instrumental arrangements gradually unfold.
Much of the album’s character also comes from the juxtaposition of its synthesised and live elements, most affecting on closing tracks ‘Bent’ and ‘Burnt’; pensive piano passages are set against thunderous sub bass, and soaring strings against harsh, imposing synths. If nothing else, this dimension serves to perfectly encapsulate Kiasmos as the junction at which Arnalds’ and Rasmussen’s divergent musical backgrounds meet.